The Paris Review

Writing Roundabout: An Interview with Sam Stephenson

Mary Frank and Sam Stephenson in Frank’s studio on West Nineteenth Street, New York, 2010. Photo: Kate Joyce

Sam Stephenson’s biography, Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View, was published late last month. Its subject, the photographer W. Eugene Smith, should be familiar to longtime readers of the Daily: since 2010, we have run Stephenson’s chronicles of Smith’s myriad photographic projects and exploits with the luminaries of the midcentury New York jazz scene (Stephenson is also the author of The Jazz Loft Project, which was excerpted in issue no. 190) as well as—and perhaps most importantly—stories about the somebodies and nobodies who populated the margins of Smith’s life. Over sixteen essays, Stephenson tracked his subject across six decades, from his childhood in Kansas through the American South to rural Japan and Saipan. And through these essays, Stephenson discovered that he could not untangle his work as Smith’s biographer—a job that has consumed him for the past twenty years—from Smith’s narrative. The very process of writing a life became part of the story in which that process unfolded, and versions of the Daily pieces found their way into his very unconventional biography.

Nearly seven years to the day of our first correspondence, Stephenson and I talked on the phone about collaboration, the importance of digression, and, of course, Gene Smith.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote me with ideas for blog posts in September of 2010, the month I started at the Review. One of them was on the artist Mary Frank, another was on the musician Dorrie Woodson, and another was on the musician Joe Henry. All of those ideas turned into pieces on the Daily, and versions of the Frank and Woodson ended up being chapters in your book.

STEPHENSON

We got off to a strong start. If you look at the body of work we’ve done together over seven years, it marks a span of time over which my outlook and my style and evolved and took shape. The book became something much different than what I proposed and what Farrar, Straus and Giroux signed up for. I can now articulate that evolution to some degree, and working with you was critical to that development. 

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